Exposure to information about COVID-19 through social media is associated with increased symptoms of anxiety, according to a recent Chinese study. The report was published in PLOS One.
The rapid spread of new virus COVID-19 throughout China, and its quick transmission to many other countries was unprecedented and extraordinary. Numerous studies have reported that the mental health implications of the pandemic are real and at times severe, both on medical workers and the public.
As the study authors point out, past research provides compelling evidence that exposure to media during a public crisis is partly responsible for the rise in mental health problems. Due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the rapid development of news around the globe, social media users are bombarded with information on an almost constant basis. The World Health Organization calls this an ‘infodemic’ and stresses the important task of dispelling rumors and misinformation.
This new study wanted to examine the relationship between exposure to social media during the pandemic and mental health issues. Researchers focused on the two common disorders of anxiety and depression.
A total of 4,872 adults from 31 different regions of China completed questionnaires between January 31 to February 2, 2020. The surveys assessed social media exposure by asking participants how often they had been exposed to news or information related to COVID-19 through social media in the last week. The WHO-Five Well-Being Index was used to measure positive feeling in participants, with a score below 13 indicating depression. Anxiety was also measured using the generalized anxiety disorder scale.
Results showed that 82% of respondents reported being frequently exposed to information about the pandemic through social media. Nearly half of respondents (48%) made the cut off for depression and nearly a quarter (23%) met criteria for anxiety. Around 19% of respondents met criteria for both disorders. The authors point out that these rates are much higher than the latest national sample which shows prevalence rates for depression at around 7% and anxiety at around 8%.
Exposure to social media was associated with greater odds for anxiety as well as a greater likelihood for a combination of anxiety and depression. No relationship was found between social media exposure and odds for depression on its own.
Regional differences were also apparent. Despite showing social media exposure rates that were similar to other regions, those in the Hubei province had increased rates of anxiety. Researchers explain this is not surprising, given that the Hubei province was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and the area with the most severe lockdown measures in place.
The researchers conclude that their findings offer meaningful insight into the serious mental health consequences of COVID-19, demonstrating that social media exposure during the pandemic is intensifying anxiety in the Chinese population. They suggest an important step is to address the infodemic by “monitoring and filtering out false information and promoting accurate information”.
The study, “Mental health problems and social media exposure during COVID-19 outbreak”, was authored by Junling Gao, Pinpin Zheng, Yingnan Jia, Hao Chen, Yimeng Mao, Suhong Chen, Yi Wang, Hua Fu, and Junming Dai.